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Sunday, September 18, 2005

The US Air Force Is Born, September 18, 2005

Today in 1947, the United States Air Force officially became a separate branch of the armed forces. I use the term “officially” because the service was actually created by the National Security Act of 1947, which became law on July 26, 1947. However, it was on this day that Stuart Symington became the first Secretary of the Air Force, putting the service on an equal footing with the Army and Navy.

The group that would become the Air Force was first established in 1907 as part of the US Army Signal Corps. This Aeronautical Division would soon own eight balloons and a small dirigible. The Army began testing a plane built by the Wright Brothers in 1908. In September of that year, the Army's first pilot, Thomas Selfridge, was killed in a crash. His death caused a re-thinking of the Wright Flyer; a new plane, identified as “Airplane No. 1” was formally accepted by the Army in 1909.

When the first World War began in 1914, the United States Army owned one squadron of aircraft capable of combat. This would rapidly change over the course of the next four years. By the end of the war in 1918, the US had 740 aircraft fighting on the front lines in Europe. Keep in mind that this was still only about 10 percent of the total allied aircraft involved in the fighting.

One thing that became obvious to some forward-thinking officers after the war was that the Air Corps needed to be a separate service with its own high-ranking staff. Up to that point, most squadrons had been attached to ground units, which meant that it was all but impossible to plan large-scale bombing missions, something that would play a crucial part in the next war. But as has been the case throughout US history, peace came with a price for the military and especially the Air Corps. By 1920, the entire organization was made up of only approximately 1,100 officers and 8,400 enlisted men. This represented a reduction in force of over 90%.

When war came again to Europe, the United States began to frantically build an Air Corps that was a match for the German Luftwaffe. In 1939, President Roosevelt asked Congress to fund a program that would produce 7,800 aircraft manned by 400,000 troops by June, 1942. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 made that number immediately inadequate.

The War Department (as the Department of Defense was then known) soon changed the name of the Army Air Corps to the Army Air Forces and made it a separate command within the Army. This is the way things would remain for the duration of the war. By 1945, Roosevelt's call for a 7,800-plane force seemed quaint: in September of that year, the Army Air Forces contained 2.2 million men and women and nearly 64,000 aircraft.

The Second World War proved that aircraft could not only support armies on the ground, but could operate independently deep behind enemy lines. Technology and size meant that the Air Force needed to be its own branch of the US military. A separate air force would go on to prove its worth in Korea, Vietnam, two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and in numerous military and humanitarian operations around the globe. It's hard to say what the next six decades will bring.

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